Captive Chimpanzees Finally Protected Under the Endangered Species Act

October 22, 2015

By: Carla Rohde Robinson

Xin Li/Flickr

Since 1976, wild and captive chimpanzees have been protected as threatened under the US Fish & Wildlife (USFWS) Endangered Species Act (ESA). Despite this listing, threats to wild chimpanzees continued to grow over the decades that followed including: large scale deforestation and development of chimpanzee habitat, poaching for bush meat, outbreaks of disease due to human encroachment, and the capture of infant chimpanzees for the pet trade. In 1990, wild chimpanzees were reclassified as endangered under the ESA, providing them additional protections not afforded to captive chimpanzees, which retained their threatened status. USFWS Director, Dan Ashe, stated that, at the time, they “felt it was important to encourage captive breeding of chimpanzees to extend the population and reduce initiatives to capture chimpanzees from the wild. Keeping captive animals listed as threatened under the ESA also allowed for certain biomedical activities to continue, including sale, import and export, and take of captive chimpanzees.” (Ashe, 2015)

The United States is the only developed nation in the world that has continued to use great apes for research.
Thomas Kessens/Flickr

At the turn of the 20th century, one to two million chimpanzees inhabited Africa.  However, between 2000 and 2010, Africa lost 3.4 million hectares of forest, and as a result, chimp populations plummeted by as much as 90% in some areas. Current population estimates now range from 170,000-300,000 total chimps left in the wild, mostly found in disconnected habitats sprawled across 20 countries ranging from southern Senegal through Central Africa to Western Tanzania.

In an effort to further protect our closest relatives in captivity, a coalition of organizations, including the Jane Goodall Institute and the Humane Society of the United States, sent a petition in 2010 to USFWS requesting the agency to reclassify captive chimps as endangered.  USFWS took their plea seriously, and in 2013, they began to formally reevaluate their only “split listing” in the history of the ESA. On June 12, 2015, after two years of review, the agency announced that captive chimpanzees would now be federally listed as an Endangered Species, thereby guaranteeing them the same protections as their wild counterparts!

According to the USFWS, “this change will not end private ownership of chimpanzees, or interfere with routine care. However, owners wishing to sell chimpanzees across state lines, or to import or export a captive chimpanzee or any of its parts, will need to meet very specific criteria and obtain a permit from the Service. The ESA also prohibits inhumane treatment of protected species through its take prohibition. Any activities resulting in take of captive chimpanzees – those likely to result in distress, injury or harm – would require a permit. Individuals and organizations will need to demonstrate that the activity for which they are requesting a permit would enhance the species in the wild, or support scientific research that benefits wild chimpanzees.” (Ashe, 2015) Official 2015 USFWS Ruling on Captive Chimpanzees

The deadline for organizations to apply for research permits involving captive chimpanzees came and went on September 14, 2015 without a single permit application being filed. It seems many federally-backed facilities involving chimps in biomedical and behavioral research are bringing projects involving the animals to a close.  A great example of this is the Southwest National Primate Research Center (SNPRC) in Texas, who currently houses 129 chimpanzees. After the USFWS ruling, SNPRC wrapped up any ongoing studies they had involving chimps, and announced they have no further plans to apply for the permits. The National Institute of Health has also stated they are not currently funding any biomedical or behavioral research programs involving chimps, and that they plan to “phase out the funding and use of nearly 400 chimps housed at facilities across the country, mostly in New Mexico and Texas.” (Fears, June 2015) The Director of NIH, Francis S. Collins, stated that the agency would plan to keep around 50 chimps for research and place all remaining chimps in sanctuaries.

There are approximately 2,000 chimpanzees in captivity within the United States. Estimates include about 1,000 used in invasive medical research (about 400 of those are government-owned), 250 in zoos, 600 in sanctuaries and around 250 in private ownership.
Joao Maximo /Flickr

USFWS has stated they will continue to work with the NIH, the biomedical research community, and other affected organizations as they work to understand the new ruling and implement any necessary policies to ensure the protection of captive chimpanzees under the ESA.  Jane Goodall, world-renowned primatologist and founder of the Jane Goodall Institute, was elated with the change and stated that “this will be enormously beneficial to individuals in inappropriate conditions. As such, it is a tremendously significant decision which will be welcomed by everyone concerned with the well-being of our closest living relatives.” (Fears 2015)

The Wildlife Waystation is home to over 40 chimpanzees and over 30 of them came to us in 1995 from a now closed biomedical research facility in upstate New York, Laboratory for Experimental Medicine and Surgery in Primates (LEMSIP). Despite what they have been through before arriving at our sanctuary, they remain vibrant, loving and sentient beings with an intelligence level that rivals a five to seven year old child. We hope further legislation will end both the medical testing on chimpanzees and private ownership.


To learn more about our chimpanzees and other rescued animals at our sanctuary, please visit Your continued support and donations will not only help us to continue to care of our existing chimps, but will help us better prepare when future chimps are in need of a loving, permanent home.

Rod Waddington /Flickr


Ashe, Dan. US Fish & Wildlife Service. “Director’s Cut: Protecting the Chimpanzee Here and Abroad.” June 12, 2015.

Kauffman, Vanessa. US Fish & Wildlife Service. “Press Release: US Fish and Wildlife Service Finalizes Rule Listing All Captive Chimpanzees as Endangered Under the Endangered Species Act.” June 12, 2015.

Fears, Darryl. Washington Post. “Energy and Environment: Only in the US are chimps used in medical research. This could finally end that.” June 12, 2015. June 12, 2015.

Grimm, David. Science Insider. “Has US Biomedical Research  on Chimpanzees come to an end?” August 18, 2015.